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On Sunday, I tweeted that I was spending the day catching up on the episodes of EPSN’s 30 for 30 that had backed up on my DVR, including Mike and the Maddog and Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies. One of my followers responded, asking me about my five favorites episodes of the documentary series, which I figured may make for some engaging content for your PGPers. (I also got a marriage proposal, but it didn’t pan out.) But when I pitched the idea of writing about my top five, all of my fellow writers had an opinion…and most of us did not agree. So, instead of just writing my opinion, here is a roundtable of each of your favorite writers’ top picks and our reasoning for choice, along with our honorable mentions – because none of us could truly pick just one.
The ’85 Bears
It’s been over three decades since they won Super Bowl XX, but the 1985 Bears team are still inescapable in Chicago. Every year the local media laughably compares the current season’s roster to that team, the players make promotional appearances everywhere, and there always seems to be a new production or documentary about the team being released. However, like nearly every entry in this series before it, 30 For 30 did a great job telling the story of the best team in NFL history in a way that I really hadn’t seen before. Obviously, the highlights of Walter Payton’s runs and the defense knocking out opposing quarterbacks into next week appeal to meathead fans like me who think that’s how REAL FOOTBALL is supposed to be played. And the stories about the wild personalities from that team are always funny to hear. But it was particularly enlightening to see how some of these guys are doing nowadays away from the field and out of the spotlight. We get a glimpse into the special relationship between linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who was nearing death during filming. Quarterback Jim McMahon offers a view into how years of head injuries has impacted his life and what he does to treat it. Even more harrowing was the additional insight into the struggles that eventually led to safety Dave Duerson’s suicide. Everyone is familiar with the hagiography and glory surrounding this team, so it was nice to see additional sides to everyone’s story, even if they aren’t easy to talk about.
Honorable Mentions: Run Ricky Run; The Two Escobars; Unguarded; Benji
Life of A Reilly: Big Shot
I grew up on Long Island so I was vaguely familiar with the story of John Spano’s failed attempt to purchase the New York Islanders from my childhood. However, I was not fully aware of the backstory that ‘Big Shot’ recalls that felt like something out of a Hollywood heist movie. Spano is the ultimate “fake it till you make it” con man in the world of sports. He was mere minutes away from purchasing a professional sports team without having anything even resembling the wealth required to do so! Also, E from Entourage is the director of Big Shot. E always did have an eye for good projects. Medellin aside, of course.
Honorable Mentions: The Two Escobars, Who Kill the USFL?, Pony Excess, You Don’t Know Bo, Requiem For The Big East, Fantastic Lies
Neurotic To the Bone: Miracles and Men
The 1980 Miracle on Ice is far-and-away the greatest Cinderella story in sports history. It’s tough enough to beat a team that just absolutely rolls through all competition (including an NHL All-Star team). To have it done by a rag-tag collection of college kids was damn near unbelievable. It’s a story that has been told to death time after time, which is why this doc is so fascinating. Examining the other side of the Cinderella story, the one who gets left at the ball watching the underdog celebrate their improbability. This is the story of how to create a sports juggernaut, how a country can base its identity around sport, and how those two can converge when the juggernaut is toppled. Not only is it a great examination of the history of Soviet hockey, it also tells the little-known story of how the collapse of a hockey empire allowed an influx of Russians into the NHL. As a kid who grew up idolizing Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov, and Alex Ovechkin, it’s one of the most underrated 30 for 30s out there.
Honorable Mentions: Fantastic Lies, Benji, and Broke
Quinn Truflais : The U
You all know that the second you read this article title, only one 30 for 30 came to mind: The U. Many of you may not know this, but I am a proud, trash talking University of Miami graduate. I’m a die hard ‘Canes fan, I bleed orange and green, and I am all about that swagger. I’ve never seen another 30 For 30 and I don’t need to. You know why? No other school has a tradition of greatness, fall from grace, defiant resurgence, and yeah, swagger, quite like ours.
You want 80s rap tracks? Got em. Brawls on the field and in the tunnels? Yup. Colorful Miami icons like Uncle Luke? Done. But more importantly, you’ll also see some of the best goddam football that has ever been played. It’s hard not to watch and feel the infectious and adversarial Miami spirit that Billy Corben infuses into the film. I think Don Bailey Jr. says it best in the documentary: “What is a Miami guy? A Miami guy is a guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
The 80s and 90s Canes fundamentally changed the way football is played in America, and The U is a celebration of that change. Football has us to thank for the excessive celebration penalty (aka the Miami rule), the smoke tunnel entrances, and the beginning of the departure from the traditional wholesome white-washed football image of the past. There is no other team in football that embraced its underdog villain status quite like the Canes. So go ahead, bring on the hate and tell me I’m wrong. But if you’re gonna come for a Miami girl, you better come correct.
Honorable Mention: The U Part 2 (Duh)
JR Hickey : Catching Hell
This is not an exceptionally well made documentary. It’s a half hour too long, they awkwardly try to tie the curse of the Cubs to the curse of the Red Sox (even though the Sox’s curse was already broken at this point). There’s a whole thing on the origin of the word “scapegoat” (who cares) and the worst part of it all: the subject of the entire doc Steve Bartman is never interviewed. Every single other person in section 113, row 8 at Wrigley that night gets on-camera and the infamous non-catch is replayed about a thousand times from every angle. It’s a disjointed and ugly film. Much like Chicago sports fandom.
For 8 months out of the year Chicago is plunged into an icy hell that keeps us glued to our sports teams, living and dying with every moment. The Bartman incident is widely considered the lowest in Chicago sports history and this documentary encapsulates that perfectly. The footage of him being escorted from Wrigley and the violence directed at him is still shocking 14 years later. The dark side of a wonderful sports town that hadn’t had success in decades came spilling into the limelight and it made me as a Chicagoan and lifelong Cubs fan embarrassed.
It was the lowest the city and the Cubs organization had been …and it’s why last fall was so spectacular.
Honorable Mentions: Four Days in October, ’85 Bears, June 17th, 1994
Kyle Bandujo : The Best That Never Was
I’m an avid CFB fan, but until this doc came out I’d never heard of Marcus Dupree. One of the earliest 30 For 30’s, this one stands out just above the rest for me. Hearing the story of this recruiting battle I’d never heard of, and then the perspective of all the different players involved in Marcus’ saga, made for an extremely compelling documentary.
What makes it even better for me is how likable and at peace Marcus Dupree himself was, despite the ups and downs he went through because of football. Plus we got some old salty Barry Switzer takes, which are the best takes.
Honorable Mentions: The U, Pony Excess, Unguarded, The Two Escobars
Bisgard: You Don’t Know Bo
My favorite 30 for 30 is You Don’t Know Bo. I’m young enough to have never seen him play, but old enough to have heard all the lore behind him. Hearing about all his feats and popularity put into perspective just how good he was, how better he was than even the athletes I grew up with. It was also cool to see the beginning of apparel marketing that became so prominent during my adolescence. Bo and the Nike marketing campaign he launched laid the foundation for so many other athletes’ apparel deals.
Honorable Mentions: The Two Escobars, Hit it Hard, Youngstown Boys, The U
Boston Max: Four Days In October
When I tell my kids what growing up in Boston was like as a fan, sure I’ll tell stories of Tom Brady dominance, but the story starts and ends for me with the Red Sox breaking the curse. This 30 for 30 just perfectly details how incredible the comeback from 0-3 against the Yankees was. To beat our mortal enemy in that fashion on the way to bringing a baseball championship to Boston for the first time since 1918, it’s just a story so improbable and unfathomable, it’s the greatest theater I’ve ever seen. And I also got to go to the World Series Game 1, which is a top memory from my childhood.
Honorable Mentions: Benji, Without Bias, Playing for the Mob, Rand University
Icehouse: Run Ricky Run
The day after Thanksgiving of 1998, a spry young Icehouse sat in the opposing team’s section at Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin, TX. At first I was miffed at having to sit among the goons that had traveled into town, but that all changed when Ricky Williams took a simple dive in the first quarter. Ricky ran more than 60 yards, both breaking the college rushing record and scoring a touchdown, extending the ball across the goal line about fifty feet in front of me. From then on he had a special place for me. This 30 for 30 is about his well-publicized downfall, throughout which he still showed flashes of brilliance. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when undiagnosed social disorders and substances mix, but ends with a happy and content man pursuing the things that fulfill him.
Honorable mentions: Without Bias, The Birth of Big Air, Pony Excess, Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau
Miss MacKay: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
1995; the shorts were short and hopes were high for Knicks fans heading into the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was a rematch from the 94 conference finals, against the Indiana Pacers – or more specifically – (and as the title of my favorite 30 for 30 suggests) a rematch against Reggie Miller. ‘Winning Time’ is my favorite for many nostalgic reasons. I actually remember actually watching the game in which Reggie made himself public enemy number one in the city by making the choke sign at Spike Lee. I love this 30 for 30 because it tells much of the 94/95 games story from Miller’s side, which as a kid (and as the kid of a Knicks’ fan to boot) I would never have known. I’ve seen this a handful of times, and one of the greatest take-aways after watching every time is that Reggie is one of the best trash talkers then, now, and there will ever be. And 8 points in 8.9 seconds? Miller talks the talk and walks the walk.
Honorable mentions: The U, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, The Fab Five, Four Days In October
Delph: Rand University
I have to go with Rand University because I’m all about straight cash homie. Randy Moss is a national treasure, and possibly one of the greatest athletes in West Virginia history. Everyone knows that he was a phenomenal football player, but this 30 for 30 also highlights his basketball and baseball talents. I love the look into the effect rural Appalachia has on a young man because it’s something that resonates with me well. I also love the story of Moss failing at two big schools, then headed back home to dominate at Marshall. You have to love that.
Honorable mentions: No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (love A.I.), The Two Escobars, The Fab Five
Maddof: Requiem for the Big East
My favorite 30 for 30 is Requiem for the Big East. It does spend a lot of time on the Georgetown vs Syracuse rivalry but that was a huge part of Big East basketball. It noted the rise and fall of the Big East, the growth of ESPN and ended fairly abruptly. Nevertheless, as someone that watched Big East basketball via WVU, it was a good watch. I spent hours a week watching forums as the Big East I knew fell apart and schools went to new conferences. Thankfully, WVU has found a home in the Big 12 (for now).
Honorable Mentions: June 17th, 1994, Pony Excess, The U, Kings Ransom, Of Miracles and Men
Me: Without Bias
Full disclosure: I waited until I saw which episodes my fellow PGP writers picked for their favorites before making a decision on mine, A.) because I firmly believe they are better writers then me and could do more justice to their picks and B.) I really had a hard time choosing, and I figured if they picked some of my favorites (The Best That Never Was, You Don’t Know Bo, and Run Ricky Run among them), that meant I could include another one on this list.
So I stepped out of my own (football) box and picked Without Bias. It’s the story of Len Bias, the standout Maryland forward who was chosen as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft by the Celtics, only to suffer a seizure due to cocaine use back on campus the next day, ultimately passing away four days later.
Now, I’m a homer, and being a life-long Bostonian, I had heard of Len Bias, but I didn’t know the story, and for me, the most intriguing eps of 30 for 30 are the ones that teach me about something I didn’t know. Even more important in the Bias story was what happened after his death, which the episode also details: his mother is now an prominent anti-drug lecturer while his father became an advocate for handgun control after the death of his other son, Len’s younger brother Jay, a star basketball player in his own right, in a drive-by shooting. If you don’t cry at their anguish and ultimate channeling of it into something positive, you’re dead inside.
Honorable Mentions: Jordan Rides The Bus, Broke, Benji, Survive and Advance, One and Not Done (I went to UMass and hate John Calipari more than anything, and this almost made me like him. Almost), Doc and Darryl, Believeland, Into the Wind, Fantastic Lies, The Four Falls of Buffalo…Ugh, this is why I didn’t do my top five.
My colleague Brian said this in his submission (which I edited out for length; sorry, buddy): “These documentaries were a sobering perspective of the humanness behind so many of the athletes we laud, as well as the dangers of putting the athletes and the sport higher than their humanity can handle.” Which is true…but they are also stories of how sport, and both the tragedies and triumphs that arise from it, can take us in directions we never thought we would go. So which one is your favorite?.
Image via miqu77 / Shutterstock.com